Passover 5774 – Signs to Notice

April 30, 2014

I am tired of giving sermons like this.  It seems like every few months we are responding to a tragedy.  Each time we are left asking if we missed indicators that the assailant was on the brink.  Were there signs to notice?  On Sunday, there was a shooting at the JCC in Kansas City in which 3 people were killed by a white supremacist.  Reat Griffin Underwood was 14 years old and was with his grandfather, William Corporon.  They were in the JCC parking lot as Reat was trying out for a singing competition.  Then the same shooter drove a mile away to the Jewish retirement home and killed Terri LeManno as she was in the parking lot after visiting her mother.  The shooter did not enter either complex.  None of the victims were Jewish but just for being at Jewish places, they were killed.

Just one week ago today, last Wednesday, a 16 year old boy at a high school outside of Pittsburgh made his way through his school stabbing and slashing 20 of his classmates and a security guard.  People immediately asked if there were signs to notice beforehand.

Two weeks ago was the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas where the attacker killed three and wounded 16 others.  Investigators immediately began looking for signs that may have indicated he was about to go on a rampage.

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing.  People wanted to know if there were signs.

In three weeks, it will be one year since three women in Cleveland were freed from their captivity.  They were held as prisoners for over 10 years.  The home was not in a distant rural setting far from neighbors.  The house on Seymour Avenue was in the midst of a modest neighborhood with homes right next to one another.

The nation was stunned that these three women could be enslaved for a decade without anyone noticing.  In all these cases, why didn’t people notice?

One of the Cleveland victims, Michelle Knight has written a book that is about to be released.  It is titled “Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed: A Memoir of the Cleveland Kidnappings.”  Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus have also written a memoir that will be released next year.  To be honest, I do not think I have any interest in reading about these horrors but I may just buy these books as a small way to express my support for these women.

Each attacker in all these events was of a different age and was motivated by different dark things.  Weren’t there signs of something unusual in any of these cases… if people had been more aware?  Weren’t there signs of isolation or numerous other indicators which people could have noticed… if only we were more attuned to noticing?

We ‘notice’ each other differently today.  In part, we have become fooled into thinking that Facebook or Twitter posts give us an insight into how people are doing.  These are certainly fun ways to feel connected with others but are a poor substitute for really ‘friending’ someone – the old fashioned way.  Social media posts do not give us a real insight into a friend.  Often, these posts are snippets of the best things happening in other’s lives.  I love Facebook and use it frequently.   Last week alone on Facebook I found out what was served to the Press Corp on Air Force One, a lot of people I am ‘friends’ with saw Jayson Werth’s grand slam home run at the Nats’ game and it was a friend’s dog’s 5th birthday.  Social media though, distorts our perception of what other people are doing by highlighting the peak experiences of people’s lives.  Seeing everyone else’s amazing vacations, achievements, humorous quips, and fabulous recipes can make you feel inadequate.  It seems that nobody else has just ordinary days. The unintended consequence of social media is that it leaves some feeling more isolated and insufficient.

Today, we ‘notice’ each other differently.

Beyond the new types of connections that social media create, we live differently than we did a generation or two ago and that means we ‘notice’ differently as well.

Rabbi Jack Riemer points out that we even build houses differently and therefore we live in neighborhoods differently. He points out that the simple invention of air conditioning changed things in part.  Before air conditioning, he says, people lived with fans.  In order to stay cool, you had to have open windows. Now that we have air conditioning, windows have to stay closed in order for the house to stay cool.

We are not as connected to what is happening on our streets or neighborhoods – as symbolized by the closed windows.

Riemer describes that when President Roosevelt was giving one of his fireside chats on the radio, you could walk down the street and not miss a word of the President’s address during your walk because everyone in every house you passed was listening.  Every window was open so you could have heard the entire talk.

Now, we close the windows to those who walk by.  We watch the news cloistered in our own living rooms and often do not notice what is happening outside.  Today, many people know more about what is going on in Ukraine than we know about what is happening with our neighbors. These are some of the reasons why people could live on the same street in Cleveland where these young women were being held prisoner for ten years and not know anything at all about it.

When Rebekah and I lived in New York, I discovered the stoop.  The stoop, or on a home is called a front porch, is the place at the front of the apartment building where people hangout.  Neighbors talk with each other about events of the day and watch the world walk by.  My street had the gentleman who sat in front of the hardware store on the corner and another who lived across the street from us.  When I saw one of them visiting the other’s stoop, I knew something big had happened in the neighborhood.  Maybe somebody got a new job or a baby was on the way.

People knew each other’s news.  But in the suburbs, we build beautiful porches but we do not sit there much.  Where do we sit?  We sit on the patio in the backyard – fenced in so we are separate from our neighbors.

We do not notice each other much and I am tired of having to speak about another tragedy.

I am tired of the ‘mind your own business’ excuses that we use to let ourselves off the hook from noticing or caring.

We are responsible for our community.

We must notice domestic abuse, depression, illness, addiction, losses and notice new joys, opportunities or reasons to celebrate with each other.  We must ‘notice’ each other more.

In many ways, Passover puts us in a state of hyper-noticing.  We become very aware of what we eat and how we cook.  We go to great efforts to notice our surroundings related to food so it is the perfect time to make a better effort to notice people as well.  It is not an easy task but we have learned that the consequences can be significant if we do not notice each other.

In the parsha that we will read after Passover it says: “Lo ta-amod al dam re-echa” – do not stand idly by as the blood of your neighbor is spilled (Lev 19:16).  In Cleveland, Kansas City, Fort Hood and in Pittsburgh, this is literal.  We must notice.

Not one of us can ‘notice’ everything though.  We must all take this on but we cannot assume that someone else will notice what we see.  We are each responsible for each other.  Ultimately, we are accountable individually and collectively.

There is a midrash in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a-b) that teaches despite our individual limitations, we are judged together.

Said Rabbi Judah: I will tell you a parable.

Once there was a king who had a beautiful orchard with splendid figs. He appointed two watchmen for his orchard. One watchman was lame, and the other one was blind.

One day the lame man said to the blind man: “I see beautiful figs in the orchard. Come, I will ride on your shoulders, and we’ll take them and eat them.” So the lame man rode on the shoulders of the blind man, and they took the fruits and ate them.

Some time after, the owner of the orchard came and inquired of them, “Where are those beautiful figs?” The lame man replied, “Have I feet to walk with?” The blind man replied, “Have I eyes to see with?”

What did the king do? He placed the lame watchman on the shoulders of the blind watchman, and judged them together.

We each have limitations but we should not quietly ignore indications around us.  We may feel impolite or intruding but we must ‘notice’ each other more.  If we do not, we will feel the consequences as a community.

So tonight, call one person in your circle of connections who you feel needs to be ‘noticed.’  If they are feeling alone, invite them to join the community at Café Pesach this Friday.  If they need help, offer to assist them to connect with others who may be able to help.  If they are sick, make a plan for a visit.  During this week of Pesach, let’s notice each other.

Maybe it is possible that if we become better at noticing each other, we can prevent some tragedies down the way.  I cannot guarantee that ultimately noticing will help… but I know that noticing each other more fully will not hurt either.

I am tired of hearing that we should have seen indicators.  This Passover, let’s notice each other more.  Let’s lift each other up more, and let’s realize that what makes us a stronger community is when we can come together in our strengths and our personal limitations.

Chag Kasher v’Semeach.